Delighting Diners (and Winers) for Half a Century

rustypelicanoutsideIn yesterday’s blog, I mentioned that when I was growing up, the Johnson family-owned Balboa Bakery in Newport Beach, California, provided bread to two of the best local restaurants.

Both of those restaurants — the Chart House and the Rusty Pelican — were located on Pacific Coast Highway, and I can vividly recall not only mixing, shaping, baking and slicing that bread, but also joining Dad in the family station wagon to deliver it… usually a hundred or two loaves at a time.

The Chart House is long gone from that location, but the Rusty Pelican remains. Founded in 1965, it’s gearing up for its 50th anniversary in 2015.

For more than 10 years, both restaurants served our family’s Squaw Bread as a pre-meal treat and to accompany the soup/salad course. Each table received a basket containing half of a one-pound loaf, warmed, accompanied by a little dish of whipped butter — exactly how we’d eat it at home.

Squaw Bread (which probably would require a different name today in the wake of the recent ruling over the NFL Washington Redskins’ name) was made with a mixture of wheat and rye flours, delivered in 100-pound bags by a bakery supply company.

My Dad took that mix and then added a few secret ingredients to differentiate his Squaw Bread from all others. His had a mellower (less sharp) flavor and a kiss of sweetness that made it unique, not to mention an anticipated part of a Rusty Pelican meal.

The restaurant hasn’t served Squaw Bread for a long time, but its fresh garlic bread appetizer is quite good, and its seafood-heavy menu of entrees remains stellar. Johnson family favorites include the fresh salmon and shrimp, topped with lobster sauce; penne alla vodka with shrimp and scallops; and pan-roasted opah, served over a bed of marinated tomatoes. The filet mignon, served with a Cabernet reduction, also is superb.

And here’s something I didn’t know about the Rusty Pelican way back when, but do now: It boasts a well-selected wine list, heavy on bottlings that pair well with the restaurant’s signature fish dishes.

The Newport Beach dining scene is ever evolving, and has changed considerably since the Squaw Bread days. But the Rusty Pelican proves that by emphasizing freshness and quality, and offering a solid wine list, a restaurant can be successful for a long, long time.

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The Rusty Pelican in Newport Beach, California, is located at 2735 West Coast Highway. Reservations: 949-642-3431. More info: www.rustypelican.com

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